Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


26.2.1  Rumor and Credibility

Sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani of the University of California at Santa Barbara has remarked that in disasters one of the first things men seek, after saving themselves, is news. Often they become so desperate for such information that they become careless about its source. If sufficient news is not available, it may develop spontaneously.1875

In a Surprise Contact scenario, and to a lesser degree in Direct Contact situations, the likelihood of such "spontaneous news" is high. Studies in the psychology of rumor by the late Gordon W. Allport and Leo Postman at Harvard University during the 1940’s showed that scare stories travel fastest and persist the longest when three critical elements are present:

1. Lack of News -- rumor flies in the absence of reliable and authoritative news reportage;

2. Personal Impact -- the theme of the rumor must have some significance both to speaker and listener in a highly personal and private sense; and

3. Ambiguity -- the true facts must be shrouded in some real or imagined ambiguity.741

Each of these elements should be present during a typical Surprise Contact. Simply because of the unusual nature of the event and the natural confusion which would result, news would be temporarily unavailable during the first few hours or days following the event. A deliberate governmental policy of suppression of the facts would only prolong the dearth of information.

As for personal impact, the event would be of maximum significance in the immediate locality of the contact. Modern telecommunications networks, which have created a "global village," would have the effect of spreading impact over greater geographical areas, statewide and perhaps nationally. Impact will also be heightened if there are reports of sudden confrontations with other unannounced ETs. The normal background of UFO reports may be blown out of proportion, and wild rumors of new landings and hostile activities by (nonexistent) alien visitors could begin to circulate elsewhere in the host country and in neighboring nations as well.

Finally, ambiguity may be induced by the absence or sketchiness of news, by the conflicting nature of the news, by distrust of the news (as where it is perceived that the government is deliberately hiding something), or by some emotional tensions that make the individual unable or unwilling to accept the facts set forth in the news.741 Since it is clear that all news of the Contact must necessarily remain ambiguous at first, we must conclude that highly compelling and disturbing rumors could spread like wildfire through urban population centers around the world.

One rather unusual psychological experiment reported by Philip Klass in his book UFOs Explained695 illustrates well the influence of the media on public perception of events. On 13 April 1971, John Forkenbrock and several of his sociology students at the West Central high school. in Maynard Iowa decided to test local public and media reaction to a UFO sighting. That night students, after making arrangements with a farmer, poured gasoline in a circle in his pasture and set it afire to form a three-meter-diameter circle and four smaller "landing pad" circles. Other students, not party to the hoax, became aware of the sighting the next morning and, thinking it real, called the local radio station KOEL. Soon, news of the event was being broadcast, reporters were interviewing students, and a local UFO expert showed up within the hour. In 24 hours, news of the UFO landing had been carried by radio stations in Chicago and Minneapolis and by a number of Iowa newspapers, and NICAP Headquarters in Washington had called to investigate.

Later, when the hoax was revealed, the participants were interviewed to determine their reactions to the event. Some had accepted the reports at face value and concluded that an alien craft had indeed landed in the field outside the town. Others said they suspected a secret military vehicle might have been involved, or that the burned circles might have been caused by a meteor or a Russian satellite. Only a few had suspected a hoax from the first.

One student remarked: "I didn’t believe it at first, but I came to school and heard my friends talking and I began to believe it." Another said: "I believed it and was even fooled into going over and seeing it [burned spots]. The main reason it was so convincing was hearing it on the radio and seeing it on television." Said. one of the students who had called KOEL: "On the way back to school, after we had called KOEL and told them the whole story, all I could think about was telling more kids about it. Later on I told everybody I could see." Among some local residents the incident provoked fear. One woman reported: "My husband came home from work and loaded his gun and put it on the shelf, so I knew he was scared. ... I was scared too." Another resident admitted: "I hadn’t locked the door for twenty-five years; but when I heard that, I ran to my door, locked it, and ran underneath the bed and stayed there until I heard it was a hoax."

How might people react psychologically to the fact of Contact? In a 1973 study of this question led by social psychologist Leon Festinger, Dr. Elliot Aronson of the University of. Texas concluded that a person’s reaction to disclosure that the Air Force had been secretly studying a humanoid ET (who remained behind after a surprise encounter at an Air Force Base several years before) would depend to a very large degree upon prior belief and the degree of commitment to that belief. Aronson believes that there may arise two major classes of response to the announcement. To make the analysis more clear, he selects the most extreme viewpoints: Sam, a person who is committed to the belief that there is life in outer space and the UFOs are a real phenomenon; and Mildred, someone who disdains the reality of UFOs and prior to the announcement was that there is no intelligent life elsewhere in space.

Aronson continues:

When the press conference was held breaking the news of the humanoid’s existence, Sam’s immediate reaction was intense and unmitigated joy. After all, his belief was confirmed. His commitment was exonerated. But after an initial hurrah, his dominant and persistent response was calm acceptance. He was convinced for years that human life existed in outer space and it is certainly not surprising to learn that the government now has absolute proof of that existence -- proof in the form of this person whom they have been interviewing for the past four years or so. They have been in direct contact with this person for four years and no disaster has struck and, accordingly, it is highly unlikely that any disaster would occur in the foreseeable future.

It should be emphasized that Sam’s calm acceptance of the news that human life from another planet does definitely exist is in part Sam’s way of demonstrating his confidence in his prior beliefs. That is, the calmer he can react in public and the. more accepting he is of the event without outward show of intense emotion, the more convincing he will be to himself and to other people. Thus, when Sam arrives at the office and his colleagues ask him if he’s heard the news, he simply shrugs and says, "It was simply a matter of time -- I knew it would happen sooner or later."1640

Mildred’s reaction, on the other hand, is extremely different:

When she sees the press conference and views the humanoid she immediately suspects that the government is lying. Because of the fact that she has committed herself to the belief that UFOs are a farce and do not exist and to the belief that there is no intelligent life in outer space, anything that implies she is wrong must be derogated and disposed of.3570 Thus, Mildred immediately assumes that the government has something to gain by implying or demonstrating that they do indeed have a humanoid from outer space. ("Perhaps Nixon is trying to divert attention from Watergate or the energy crisis.") Thus, in almost a paranoid manner she convinces herself that it is a sham, that the so-called humanoid is an actor playing an elaborate role, hoodwinking the gullible. If she can succeed in doing this, then she can succeed in maintaining her high self-concept and in not losing the running argument she’s been having with Sam (and others) over the past several years.

Now in order to do this, she has to go to great lengths to convince herself and others that the government has something to gain by doing this and that the government is dishonest and clever. Moreover, because her belief has been apparently disconfirmed, she will seek social support for the continuation of that belief. Thus, she will frantically run around to try to convince other people that there is no life in outer space, that the so-called humanoid is a fake.1640

Aronson’s reasoning stems largely from Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.3569 According to this theory, if an event occurs which is consistent with beliefs to which a person is committed, then that individual is pleased, happy, calm, relaxed, and generally unmotivated by the event. On the other hand, when events occur that are dissonant with the person’s beliefs and commitments, that individual strives to reduce the dissonance. According to Aronson:

One way to reduce the dissonance is to deny the fact that those events have actually occurred, and in order to deny that fact, one has to construct an apparently reasonable explanation for the events that is consistent with the primary belief. Moreover, since a state of dissonance is an unstable and psychologically uncomfortable situation, one really needs to bolster that explanation for the events and to strengthen one’s initial belief, in this case, the belief that there is no life in outer space. The more you can convince other people that you are right -- in this case, the more you can convince other people that there is a government plot -- the greater will be the reduction of dissonance and the more comfortable you will become.1640

In the same study in which Dr. Aronson participated, a prominent Yale University psychologist (who wished to remain anonymous) concluded that many respected scientists, statesmen, journalists and educators who had not been asked to be present to witness the encounter or subsequent investigations might regard the entire incident purely as a hoax:

The initial skepticism and outright disbelief publicly expressed by many eminent scientific authorities as well as by other prestigious leaders of the national community who were not insiders will have a marked effect on the reactions of the U.S. public. ... The announcement will also get a very bad press from leading scientists and politicians in the Soviet Union and in other countries where the U.S. government, and especially. the U.S. military establishment, is not trusted.

In the absence of any clear-cut demonstration that would be utterly convincing to the majority of scientists, outside the little circle of the Air Force Base, the authenticity of [the encounter] will continue to influence the public’s views and actions, even if supposedly convincing evidence is continuously being presented on later TV shows and in documentary movies by the Air Force and its scientists (and by other scientists invited to join the prestigious university lab to which the [alien] visitors have been transferred to counteract charges of an Air Force plot). Many of the scientists who initially attacked the credibility of the original TV show will have publicly committed themselves. And public commitment is a great source of resistance to persuasive communications that might otherwise change a person’s mind. It leads the person to reduce dissonance or conflict by bolstering his original position with new arguments. [See Deutsch, Krauss, and Rosenau,3572 Festinger3573 Gerad, Belvans, and Malcolm,3574 Kiesler,3663 and McGuire.3634] So the public will continue to be treated to a wide variety of impressive negativistic comments during the months following the TV show, which will make for considerable ambiguity.1640

But in a Surprise Contact’ scenario in which the actual landing receives widespread publicity, news is likely to be in short supply. People will turn first to institutional channels; but there, reporters and the public alike may find only frustration. Rumor, a form of news, arises in situations of tension when ordinary communication channels are operating inadequately. As Shibutani has pointed out: "Rumor construction is likely to occur if the demand for news in a public exceeds the supply made available through institutional channels."1875 Typical rumors might include stories of strange diseases going around or reports that mysterious signals had been detected from a supposed "invasion fleet" hovering just out of radar detection range. Unusual but natural disasters may be blamed on the aliens' arrival.

How should rumors be dealt with? Censorship has often been attempted in the past, but this only serves to aggravate the problem the public becomes aware of it. It is widely agreed that known or suspected censorship increases the incidence of rumors. Denials of widely-believed reports or the overt punishment of free speech makes official channels suspect. A feeling may develop that officials are trying to hide something, even when they aren't, and often what is suspected of being hidden is far more sinister than the facts. There is also a kind of poisoning effect: once censorship is suspected, other items from official sources are also distrusted. Rumors develop even when all known facts have been disclosed. Once official channels are regarded as unreliable, people are no longer reassured by denials and many rumors may develop.1875

Reflecting on the explosion of UFO reports during the last two decades and the widespread and persistent rumor that the government is withholding the "true facts," the late Dr. Edward U. Condon, noted physicist, director of a major study of UFOs completed in 1969, and arch UFO-skeptic, once lamented: "Developments of this kind leave no doubt in my mind that a serious mistake was made in early 1953 in not declassifying the entire subject and making a full presentation of what was known."741 In similar vein, the late Dr. Carl Gustavus Jung, the eminent Swiss psychoanalyst, offered the following advice:

If it is true that the American Air Force or the government withholds telling facts, then one can only say that this is the most unpsychological and stupid policy one could invent. Nothing helps rumors and panics more than ignorance. It is. self-evident that the public ought to be told the truth.1623

A fine example of free and orderly dissemination of potentially explosive information was provided in 1957 by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory after the surprise launching of Sputnik by the Soviets. Smithsonian scientists quickly decided to tell the public all that was known. They set up an information center where regular news conferences were held and all data were available, an openhanded approach that helped to dispel much of the fear the surprise launching invariably aroused.3608 Virtually all psychologists who have investigated rumor seriously have recommended providing adequate information through traditional institutional channels.

Another useful procedure which might be operated in parallel is the concept of the "rumor clinic." Although most such means have heretofore only been applied in wartime situations, the same technique might prove useful during a Direct or Surprise Contact encounter. During World War II, for instance, the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety dedicated itself to the prevention and control of rumors through publicity. Reported rumors were collected at various listening posts, refuted by authorities or experts, and then published in a large newspaper chain. Reprints of these articles were then sent to interested parties elsewhere in the country.741 A more contemporary example was the Rumor Control Center established by Governor Thornburgh during the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979. The Center provided a phone number that anyone could call to get updated reliable facts.3717

Of course, there is always the danger that such organizations may come to be perceived as the mere tool of special interests -- big business, the military, a political party, the government -- unless it is scrupulously honest and objective in its dealings with the public. News thought to be of interest to or screened by those in control is often dismissed as propaganda; when institutional channels are discredited, the supply of reliable news is cut off and unreliable rumors begin to fly.

Yet another technique is based on the "two-step" model of public communication.3554 In this model, "opinion leaders" act as mediators between the mass media and the "rank and file." That is, information flows from television, radio, and the printed page to opinion leaders and from them to the rest of the community. This same principle may be applied in the context of news dissemination during a Contact event. The best way to affect public attitudes towards the ETs might be a mass mailing of calming and informative data to community opinion leaders, both in politics (e.g., mayors, city managers, etc.) and various professional people (e.g., doctors, representatives, bankers, authors). As an additional measure, representatives from all major special interest groups should be invited to Washington for a full and complete briefing.


Last updated on 6 December 2008